This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.
A continuation of Last letter from India: Manipur
I go to Nepal to get to Tibet.
It is all part of “maintaining the integrity of my trip”, as Jeffrey Chu, my Shanghai-based travel companion in China, puts it. When I first sketch out the broad outlines of this trip, one guiding principle is my desire to travel overland—no flights—from the southernmost point of India to the northernmost point of China. My experience while researching my first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, when Sumana Rajarethnam and I cycled around the whole of Peninsular Malaysia, taught me the importance of observing transitions in climate, land, vegetation, people, in understanding a large, diverse country.
While I am not bothered about travel within India and China, I worry about how I’m going to cross the Himalayas to get from one country to the other. Tibet, therefore, emerges as the potential Achilles Heel of this trip.
For although Tibet shares a long land border with India, much of it is militarised and/or inaccessible due to the rough, mountainous terrain. There are, no doubt, stories of climbers who make it across the high mountain passes, only to get caught and locked up in Chinese prisons for a year.
I find out that the only legal way for foreigners to cross into Tibet overland from India is via Nepal. However, given Tibet’s prickly diplomatic and security situation, I am unsure what kind of bureaucratic hoops I have to jump through. Entering Tibet from another part of China is relatively easy. Coming from India, as I’m doing, presents problems.
So, about a month before the India leg ends, I start making calls and writing e-mails to anybody at all who I think might help, including friends in Kathmandu; travel agents in India, China and Kathmandu; the Singapore consulates in India; and random Tibetans I meet. Never before have I expended so much time trying to get into a place.
And never before has the immigration advice I receive been so diverse. One travel agent says that our entire group—including Kirit Kiran, who holds an India passport; and Jeffrey, who holds a Taiwanese passport—can travel together easily. Then we hear that the Indian passport will present difficulties as China has a fixed allocation of Tibet visas for Indian pilgrims, most of whom go to climb Kailash, a sacred mountain, either by walking or prostrating the entire fifty-three kilometres. Meanwhile, the Taiwanese passport is apparently also problematic because, well, it’s Taiwan. Another one says that everybody in our group must be of the same nationality. Yet another one tells us that we have no hope of entering Tibet this year; we need to plan six to nine months in advance. “Call me next year?” Bah.
As the days go by, our moods yo-yo depending on the current status of our Tibet dreams. Finally, in late August, a Tibetan travel agent in Kathmandu confirms that he will be able to arrange everything for us—but it is much easier if we are of the same nationality. Thus, sadly, Kirit and Jeffrey can’t come along; enter Tan Kane Juan aka KJ Tan aka Good Man, an old Singaporean friend who flies up to meet me in Kathmandu. I am delighted to finally overcome the biggest obstacle to this seven-month overland journey. 1
I travel to Kathmandu from Patna in Bihar, an exhausting, dramatic, gorgeous ascent up the foothills of the Himalayas. It is my first visit to Nepal. I am struck not only by the scenery but by the sheer ethnic and cultural diversity. The Khas are the biggest ethnic group, but I also meet Nepalis who look like Burmese, Chinese, Indians, Malays, Tibetans and everything in between. There are hill tribes, mountain people and lowland dwellers. In Kathmandu Jeffrey and I chat with Nepali globetrotters who studied in the West and love visiting Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands; when we drive two hours outside, we encounter people who are bewildered to see us.
I will have to return to Nepal. It bridges China and India, not just geographically but culturally too, as with its influence on Tibetan Buddhism. It has become a minor pawn in Asia’s great game: as in Sri Lanka, Chinese investment is buoying locals fed up with living in India’s geopolitical orbit. And it is interesting in terms of democratic development, the multitude of ethnic groups with their competing claims making the transition from monarchy long and arduous.
I did not spend enough time there to write a detailed letter, so here is a postcard, if you will. We are in Kathmandu, serendipitously, on the day of the annual Teej festival, when women spend the day celebrating their husbands or their future mates. They dress up, mostly in red, fast the entire day, spend hours queuing to enter temples to say prayers, gather in groups and sing songs, and have to smile sweetly throughout, as random men, Nepalis and a few foreign, stop, stare and take photos.
As Jeffrey and I marvel at the festivities, we also pity the poor women perspiring in their heavy outfits, unable to drink water, as men have the day off to ogle and relax. We are initially tempted to view Teej as part of a broader South Asian cultural female subordination. Still, one lady we meet admits that despite the hardships of the day, they cherish the festival’s cultural and social significance, and enjoy hanging out with their friends, chatting and singing the day away.
The next day we travel up the hills around Kathmandu to a trout farm. The Japanese apparently introduced strawberry and trout farming to this area many years back. We visit for some of the freshest fish of our trip, which we eat right there in the kitchen.
1 Thus far, I have taken two flights: getting in and out of Imphal (see Last letter from India: Manipur). I agonised about it at the time, but on hindsight it is a small concession, given that the trip to India’s Northeast is an offshoot from the main South India-North China path.
Map image credit: peakwater.org
Walking to temple in the morning
On the way to temple; view of Kathmandu
Outside the Pashupatinath temple
Queue to get in is kilometres long
Women ring this bell on the way into the temple
Fortune teller at Pashupatinath
Pashupatinath yogi, eager to extract money from tourists for photos
Cremation pyres at Pashupatinath, by the Bagmati river, sacred to Hindus
Cremation walla. When I was taking this shot, I could smell burning flesh.
At Bhaktapur, an ancient Newar town outside Kathmandu
Same scene, different angle
One of the many majestic structures in Bhaktapur
Let’s catch trout
They fished the trout out from this pond
Four fish; four different styles
Sadaya Rana, old family friend and gracious Nepali host, and Jeffrey Chu, in front of our dining table
Chillis and tomatos
For the fried fish
Potatoes on the hill are so good
Charcoal grilled. The best.
Foil-wrapped and steamed
Continued at Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea